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Monday, August 4, 2008

Clickers are not the enemy

A couple articles about 'clickers' on InsideHigherEd have evoked some strong responses (here and here). Among the comments, there seem to be three strands: those that love them, those that hate them, and those that think they are a useful tool but recognize that they are just a tool. Since I'm in the last category, I particularly liked a comment from Peg Wherry:
Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of class size or tools available. But some tools let you do different things or even the same things in more productive ways.
Certainly, part of the push-back on clickers is because some administrators want to use clickers (and other technology) as an excuse for increasing class sizes. That is, there are some who would like to believe that the reduction in educational quality created by forcing students into huge lectures can be offset by using these tools to foster greater interaction. To a certain extent, I actually agree - I definitely think that if you are going to teach a class of 500 students, doing it thoughtfully with tools like clickers is better than doing it without them (at least for someone with my personal teaching style, which has always involved lots of interaction). On the other hand, most faculty recognize that no matter what tools you use, bigger classes are just not going to be as good as smaller classes, all else equal. It can then become uncomfortable to condone anything that seems to be making it easier to justify bigger classes.

Personally, I've sort of reached a point of acceptance; at my institution, it seems a bit futile to fight the tide of bigger classes so I've taken more of an "if you can't beat 'em, at least minimize their damage" stance. Hence my recent obsession with Web 2.0 and any tool that I think might make super-sized lectures more bearable. I must admit that sometimes I have to remind myself that these are just tools, and technology should never be considered an end in itself - it's easy to get caught up with all the bells and whistles and lose sight of the real educational objective. But as long as one keeps the right perspective, technology clearly offers enormous potential for increasing student collaboration and interaction.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has already jumped into using Web 2.0 tools like blogs or Twitter with their students. And for those like me, who are just getting started with all this, I would highly recommend a tour around Educause, especially their "7 Things You Should Know About" series.

Related posts:
Learning to trust students
Resisting change
Someone needs to write a book on Web 2.0 for aging educators


  1. I appreciate your perspective on this, Jennifer. I would add, though, that there seems to me to often be a pedagogical distinction between the pro- and anti-clicker crowd. Most faculty using clickers (at least here at SDSU) aren't doing it as a tool of convenience (in fact it's a heck of a lot of work to use clickers). They are doing it because they believe (at some level, whether conscious or instinctive) in active learning and engaging students. They do not hold the ideal that being a great teacher means being a captivating, compelling lecturer employing carefully crafted compendia of compelling verbiage, and that somehow this class size thing is responsible for a breakdown in that model, a dilution of student attention. Further, I often see in the anti-clicker folks the notion that clickers are all about low-level basic fact learning and regurgitation. In practice, though, I see faculty using clickers as a way to engage any size class in complex, controversial topics, or application of concepts. Somehow, clickers are seen by many as capitulation to the class-size-increasing-dumbing-down-expectations-MAN, rather than a teaching/learning tool which actually could make for more effective student learning in a class of 20 or 30 when used well.

  2. Thanks Jim - very well put. The only thing I might disagree about is that if I were teaching a class of 20, I don't think I'd use clickers because my preference is to ask students more open-ended questions. But that could be partly because of the subject matter (in econ we use a lot of graphs so being constrained to multiple-choice questions means students don't get as much practice manipulating graphs as I'd like them to get). And I do have to say that it's probably also partly because I'm still fairly new to using clickers and developing good questions is not easy. I can imagine that over time, I will build up a bank of good, truly thought-provoking questions that would be just as useful in a small class as a large one. I certainly hope so anyway!


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